japanshin

Legends

Imagine living in the Warring States period of Japan, when one day your neighbor swears fealty to your lord and they have a celebration together, and the next day they're sending an army to kill you.  Imagine men growing up under these warring lords, their role models being warriors, which is just another heroic name for murderer.  Finding peace with your own death in battle was an aesthetic principle.  It had to be, or what other way could you justify that kind of madness.  With no beginning or end to war, death in itself had to be an honorable aim.  Imagine being a woman married to a feudal lord, fearful each day that your husband will die in battle and you will be left with absolutely nothing.

On top of Tsuneyama (Mount Tsune), Princess Tsuruhime's husband and sons decide to end their own lives rather than be killed by their enemies.  But the princess is trained in the arts of war, and she decides to go down fighting instead of slitting her stomach with her husband's sword.  She gathers an army of 35 women to challenge the enemy to a duel, a duel that ends in tragedy, but their moment of bravery has not been forgotten.
Now we stamp our feet and sing a song of prayer.  In part, this festival is a way to connect to our past, our roots.  In part, this festival is a way to celebrate our love for this mountain that stands above us.  The people of Utogi and I gather together for an exclusive dance.


Long, long ago the land of Izumo was just a bunch of islands in the sea.  A great God came and tied a rope to the mountain Daisen.  He used this rope to pull in the island and attach them to the land.  Then he tied a rope to the mountain Sanbei.  He used this rope to lasso more islands and draw them to land.  When the land was finished, the two great ropes became the two beaches running on either side of the Matsue-Izumo area.  Then he thrust his spear, cracking the earth, and today you can see this valley between the two sections of land.  One side of the split became the body of water, Nakaumi.  The other side became the body of water Shinjiko.
Actually, Daisen and Izumo are sister volcanoes.  The lava running off from Sanbei changed the flow of water and turned Shinjiko from a sea to a brackish lake.  With a week off of work and nothing better to do, I was able to visit each of these wonderful places in turn!


Hanzaki was a giant salamander who came up from the depths of the river and wrecked havoc among the village, eating livestock and children.  Miura no Hikoshiro was brave enough to try to put a stop to this salamander beast.  He was soon swallowed up, but from the inside he severed the Hanzaki in half.  This may have killed the beast in body, but not in soul.  A curse fell upon the village and livestock and children still began to go missing, people began to fall ill, and crops failed.  Finally, the villagers built a shrine to the Hanzaki and pacified its spirit.  Hanzaki means "Split in half" meaning that even when split in half, it does not die.  At the shrine, one can leave disposable chopsticks (the ones that you split in half before you eat.)  I entered my Hanzaki picture in an art show but didn't win anything.  Anyway, it was fun to do.  Then I donated my picture to a cafe in Yubara where people who are fans of Hanzaki gather!


Obon, the day that the ancestors come back to the Earth to receive our blessings.
In the year 894, a man named Yochi lived in a small village with his blind mother.  One day he went out to sea to catch fish but he could not find any.  Looking down into the sea, he noticed something glowing below.  He pulled it up and found it to be a shining, gilded statue of Buddha.  When he arrived home without fish, the villagers laughed at him, but when he showed them the statue they were shocked.  Suddenly a fierce storm hit, with lightning and thunder, a sign from Heaven.  Yochi established the statue in his home and offered food to it daily.

One day a monk was traveling in the area and spent the night in the village.  He went to see Yochi's statue and exclaimed, "Without a doubt, this is the God of Medicine!  What a waste for it to be kept up in your home here!"  The next morning the monk made his leave by stepping into a fog and disappearing entirely.  Yochi realized that the monk had been an avatar of the Medicine God, Yakushi.  He asked what should be done with the statue.  The answer came to him in his dream that night; it needed to be thrown down a waterfall from a cliff that overlooked the sea.  The next day he did so and his mother mystically regained her sight.


Yochi decided to depart from the village carrying the statue, hoping to find a final resting point for such a wonderful God.  As he traveled, he came upon the land of Izumo, but lost his way.  Three children came suddenly out of the brush, playing, and beckoned for him to follow them.  As they ran out into a field, Yochi realized that the land was covered in medicinal plants and rare ingredients for tea.  "Here," he declared.  Where the children had been, he saw the fleeting glimpse of white claws disappearing into the brush.   He had a temple built on that ground.

After the temple had been constructed, people came from all over to see the, "God of sight" or the, "Medicine God" or the, "God of the One Field" (Ichibata) to cure their ailments, especially concerning the eyes.  About 900 years later, the statue of Kanon was installed as well.  The Emperor came to pay a visit afterwards.  The temple gained in popularity and important lords made sure to pay their respects to the Ichibata Medicine God.  Another 50 or so years later, a bus station, and then a train station were built so that anyone from all over the country can make this pilgrimage.

The bus company in Shimane is called, "Ichibata."  I'd been wondering what that word meant, but my students didn't seem to know.  Then, my neighbor from Tamano said he used to go on business trips to Matsue and told me if I liked hiking, I should try out a course that goes to an "Eyeball Temple."  I took his advice and found this legend written into the pillars of the temple, along with illustrations.


One of the earliest texts of Japan is called the Kojiki which includes many mythical legends.  One of these is the story of Okuninushi and the Hare of Inaba.  Inaba used to be in what is now Tottori prefecture.  The Hare wished to cross over a large river toward Izumo.  In the brackish water, it saw sharks and knew it would be impossible to cross without help.

So the Hare went to the shore and said, "Hey yo, I am one member of a great and prestigious family.  We multiply like rabbits.  There are so many of us.  But you don't seem to have the same such prestige."

The Sharks replied, "Oh you have no idea how many of us lurk in the depths here."

The Hare scoffed.  "That so?  Line up and I'll count you and we'll see about this."

The Sharks lined up from one shore of the river to the other.  The Hare took advantage and hopped over the backs of the sharks to reach the other side.  But the Sharks realized they'd been fooled and the last Shark grabbed for the Hare and ate off its skin as it jumped to shore.

Now at that time, Ookuninushi was a god of many, many siblings.  He was the youngest, ugliest, and smallest, always being bullied and made to carry the other gods' things around.  One day they all went to the land of Inaba where Princess Yagami was searching for a suitor.  The other gods strutted their stuff and probably made some lewd catcalls and other things, while Ookuninushi just pulled around their belongings.  He was, actually, pretty strong to be carrying around their things.

On the shores of Inaba, they came across an injured hare dying on the shore.  The Hare pleaded for help and the gods made fun of it and told it to bathe in the salty water.  The Hare tried to do so, but the salt only made the pain worse.  Ookuninushi took pity and bathed the Hare in fresh water, then bade the Hare to roll in cattails to regain its fur.  Restored to health, the Hare made a prophecy that Ookuninushi would marry the princess.


Ookuninushi's brothers were then all rejected by the princess.  When they heard she had decided on the benevolent Ookuninushi instead, they murdered him.  His mother went up to heaven and asked the Primordial Deity for help.  When he was restored to life, he came back as a handsome young man.  However his brothers were still set on his death.  Through other adventures he managed to obtain a magical scarf to protect his body,  a divine bow and arrow, and the Japanese instrument Koto.  He and his fiance escaped after many adventures, and eventually defeated all the evil brothers.

Seeing the land of Izumo full of turmoil like this, the higher gods of heaven decided to send their brethren to take it over.  However each in turn ended up on Ookuninushi's side.  Finally the decision was made to hand the land over to Ookuninushi.

Did this really happen?  Or can it be translated into a documentation of a less heavenly war that actually happened?  Or was it a legend created to convince a neighboring lord to hand over his land to his ugly brother?  There is many a speculation.


Jennifer

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